The diverse musical landscape of the southern United States is a major influence on the score of Violet. Country, bluegrass, blues, and gospel music are all evident throughout the production. Violet’s Appalachian upbringing is heard in her bluegrass twang; Monty has more of a country western influence; Flick has traces of both gospel and blues threaded through his songs. All four varieties are seamlessly woven into an undeniably theatrical score. But the history of these musical forms is reflective of the worlds the characters are coming from, divided by race and class, to get to September 1964.
Bluegrass music is often referred to as a truly American art form, and like most American inventions, bluegrass has roots from all over the world. As settlers came across the ocean and settled in the Appalachian Mountains, their many cultures melded in this remote land. Rural dance songs and traditional fiddle playing of poor Irish and English immigrants had a heavy influence on the music being passed from generation to generation. However, the signature bluegrass instrument, the banjo, actually has roots in western Africa, having been brought over by slaves in the early 1600s.
As these many styles and instruments converged over the years, a unique sound was born by combining the guitar with rapid banjo and fiddle playing, tight harmonies, and a lilt that derives from the yodeling tradition. This music was created by the community, for the community. It wasn’t until the turn of the 20th Century, with the invention of the phonograph and radio, that bluegrass was heard beyond its mountain home. The sense of the folk community in bluegrass music continues today with musicians picking away on the porch with friends and neighbors and at the incredibly popular bluegrass festivals all over the southeastern states.
The country sound of western Americans was born as an escape from the harsh realities of the Great Depression and the devastation of the Dust Bowl. With its loping guitar lines and slow mosey of a tempo, country western music came East with the help of the popular live radio show “The Grand Ole Opry,” broadcast from Nashville. At first a platform for amateur musicians to promote their local tours, “The Grand Ole Opry” soon became a national launchpad for musicians like Gene Autry, Patsy Cline, and Dolly Parton, all the way to Carrie Underwood. This fixture has helped to establish Nashville as the country music capital of the world.
Southern Gospel is music directly derived from the spirituals sung by slaves in the south. Slaves could sing about freedom, hope, and faith in songs masked by stories and characters from the Bible. After slavery was abolished, educators at Fisk University, the first African-American college in the U.S., put together a group of men to sing the spiritual songs they grew up with, touring all over world and raising money and awareness. In church, together with their community, these spirituals incorporated more of the African culture that had been banned during slavery, including stamping, clapping, and jubilant shouting.
The Blues also originated in the fields of southern plantations. Slaves sang these songs to commiserate and to empower their community when religion wasn’t enough to raise their spirits. Technically, the blues has a strict form with endless possible variances. There is even a specific scale of notes used in the blues, and these are referred to as “blue notes.” As the blues spread from its southern home in the Mississippi Delta, many different forms developed, including Boogie-woogie, Jump Blues, Chicago Blues, Memphis Blues, and many more. Beale Street was the center of the Memphis Blues movement, with predominantly African-American clubs pouring music into the street. The tradition of Beale Street lives on in modern-day Memphis.
Violet incorporates these and other musical styles to create the world that the character of Violet sets off into in search of a miracle. These musical styles are woven into the history of the communities they come from and add a layer of recognition and authenticity. Perhaps the effect is subliminal, but when you hear the twang of a guitar or a harmonica play, the sense of where you are is immediately clear. This is just another theatrical tool of the trade, and it is ingeniously incorporated in Violet.
This article features in our Upstage playgoers guide for Violet. Explore and listen to playlists of songs from the cast and creative team that were influential in creating this production.
Violet plays at the American Airlines Theatre through August 10. For more information and tickets, please visit our website.
2013-2014 Season, Education @ Roundabout, Upstage, Violet